Opinion | 14.04.2021

Young lawyers during COVID-19 times

The changes prompted by the global pandemic have impacted lawyers and everyone else in the world. Lawyers are now lacking the sense of belonging to a firm, a company, and an understanding of the quintessence of our profession and oaths. We are losing perspective on both the importance of our firms and the essence of our profession, which is to defend, to protect, and to accompany our clients. Some might say we’re going through a revolution of change in our professional lives, businesses, and even in how we are carrying our personal lifestyles; others might call it evolution. In any case, change is happening and we have all been reacting differently to it.

Younger lawyers seem to have been more vulnerable than their more seasoned colleagues in law firms. For some firms it has been more difficult to keep their junior lawyers involved with client matters; professional development has been disrupted, and mental health has also been affected.

But disruption and uncertainty can also bring opportunities, especially for lawyers starting their careers. And there are several ways for a law firm’s leadership to create a smooth transition between how junior lawyers are supported in normal times and during the pandemic, while ensuring continued training, professional development, and setting a new direction for their firms.

Experiment and innovate

Now more than ever it’s important to encourage new, fresh and creative ideas, and take risks. Law firm partners should give junior lawyers a leading role in their law firm’s innovation, in which the latter is encouraged to create room for cross-practices discussions, take initiatives in major social causes such as human rights, racial inequality, women’s rights, and sustainability, participate in networking sessions, and ask senior professionals for recommendations related to both their career and personal development paths.

Younger lawyers are also generally more familiar with using new technology tools and adopting new trends in management. They can use their savvy computer skills, share new leadership and management styles to keep their senior colleagues up to date, and accelerate the adoption of and investment in automation or agile software programmes, for instance.

Prioritise digital training and upskilling

By 2025, the time spent on current tasks at work by humans and machines will be the same, according to an analysis by the World Economic Forum. And technological adoption by companies will transform tasks, jobs and skills. Therefore, to enter the legal industry, tomorrow’s lawyers will not only need a degree, but also business, leadership, tech and soft skills. Digital training and upskilling opportunities should be a focal point in the professional development of young lawyers and a continuous learning experience for senior lawyers as well. Investing in digital platforms and certified programmes is a good way to go about this. This significant change in law firms creates an urgency to adapt to new work environments and an opportunity to add more value to their work and clients. As a result, training and upskilling could bring higher engagement and retention rates among lawyers, both junior and senior.

Rethink where and how we work

Most of us will continue to work from home well into 2021; and most likely, after the pandemic, too. Physical distance inevitably reduced practical experiences for junior lawyers, in which they could have been observing senior lawyers interact with clients, or appear in court. Also, it’s no longer that easy to just run into a colleague in the coffee corner and ask for advice, or more clarity on certain files and case studies. This is why keeping regular contact in the team is important. Law firm partners should involve their junior lawyers as much as possible, even in day-to-day tasks. It can be as simple as inviting them to the regular video conferences with clients.

Invest in mental health, wellbeing

The pandemic also caused stress, anxiety, the lack of work-life balance, and burnout levels to rise significantly between office workers from all groups of age. However, young generations have been more negatively affected compared to senior employees. ILO Monitor, a global survey on youth and COVID-19, conducted by ILO and partners, states that women, young people, and informal workers have been hit particularly hard. The uncertainty of contracts being postponed or the fear of junior associates being laid off have been some causes of anxiety. To help young lawyers cope with this situation, firms should have a transparent and communicative leadership. Mental health and wellbeing tips surely help, but having their more resilient senior lawyers showing genuine support, sharing transparent information and being flexible is paramount for the long-term success of any law firm.

Whether working remotely or from an office, you can continue to bring high-value work and top productivity to your firm. Trust is important. But now, younger lawyers require a lot more guidance and ongoing communication. Hence, more mentoring and coaching is needed from their senior supervisors for them to feel connected, supported, and feel like they are truly growing professionally. Regular check-ins such as virtual coffee breaks or fun trivia sessions, where everyone can share their experiences and ask questions can lead to a closer connection, feeling less siloed from peers and colleagues, while providing a space to openly speak about work and non-work matters.

Speaking about tomorrow’s legal world, British author, lawyer and tech expert Richard Susskind said in one of his books that “If you are a young lawyer, this revolution will happen on your watch”. Undoubtedly, some firms were better than others at keeping up with this revolution of change (or evolution?) brought by the pandemic. But it’s never too late to start.

By François Barré
AIJA President
Brussels, Belgium